Good News to the Poor
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
21 January 2007, 10:30 (Epiphany 3)
Luke 4: 14 – 21
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Next year, 2008, we celebrate 60 years of the National Health Service. Very different anniversaries, but both of them in their way acknowledging 2 vital steps on the road to a better world, a fairer, more egalitarian society. The removal of the tyranny of slavery early in the 19th century, and the post-war development of a system of health care accessible to everyone regardless of income, both of these were and are good news for the poor.
Today’s gospel reading marks the start of Jesus’ public ministry, in which he sets out what has been called the Nazareth Manifesto; in other words, this is what he has come to do, this is what his ministry is going to be about. And these are the very words he uses: Good news to the poor.
Quoting from Isaiah 61 Jesus says: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord......today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (RSV)
He could not have spelled it out more clearly. The life of Jesus Christ (and by extension, the life of his followers) is to be good news to the poor. I want to spend the next 10 minutes exploring what this means for us, 2000 years later, in a very different world.
The background to Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 61 is a fascinating insight into a unique piece of social politics from the 2nd millennium BC. Verse 19 is crucial to understand this. It refers to the Old Testament year of Jubilee, which is a charter of rights established for the Jews in Leviticus 25.
It grew out of their experience of slavery in Egypt. When they emerged as a nation from all those years of poverty and slavery to Egyptian over-lords, they wanted to establish a society that outlawed oppressive subservience. With their newfound sense of being God’s chosen people, the Jews took their experience of slavery as the basis for a new social charter, which said effectively, ‘we will build our society on a social system that enslaves no-one.’
And so they instituted this amazing visionary law called the ‘Year of Jubilee’. Every fifty years, all fields had to lie fallow, everyone would return to their original homes, all debts would be cancelled, all slaves set free. In other words, every 50th year, anyone trapped, enslaved or oppressed by the inevitable way that money attracts money, land attracts land, power attracts power; all those enslaved by the structures that create poverty would be set free, and released.
No one could accumulate money, land, property or power beyond the 50th year. So every 2nd generation, everyone went back to square one.
They called it the year of Jubilee, the year of liberation, the year of freedom; and it was this year of the Lord’s favour that Jesus came to proclaim.
You see, despite its aspiration to eradicate the structures that create social division (an aspiration un- paralleled in socio-political thought), there is no evidence that the Jews ever had the political will to make the Year of Jubilee work, and by the time of Jesus it was a very different story, for he grew up in a world that thought that if you were poor you must be out of favour with God, and therefore you must be bad. Poverty was seen as a punishment for a morally shallow life. Wealth, by contrast, was evidence of the blessing of God. And we all know what Jesus thought of that – you can sum it up in 2 sayings, ‘woe to you who are rich.....blessed are you poor’!
You can’t escape Jesus’ condemnation of the rich. He saw how easily money and possessions cut people off from God (it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God), and he called his followers to sit light to material possessions. He calls us to travel light through life, because this earth is not our home, our true home is in heaven. And if we’re just passing through, then God calls us to stewardship, not ownership.
So Jesus took a very different line on wealth from the established wisdom of this day, and his words of condemnation towards rich people are uncomfortable for us to hear, because – not to put too fine a point on it – most of us sitting in church today are rich beyond the wildest dreams of Jesus or any of his contemporaries.
But he also took a very different line on poverty as well. Jesus stood up for the poor all his life, affirming their worth and dignity in a society that had devalued them. He saw that they held a special place in God’s heart, and that ironically poverty had a habit of making people rely more firmly on God.
In this, Jesus brought a new understanding of poverty to the world. He observed how people’s experience of poverty opened them up to God somehow, in the same way that he found people’s experience of illness often did. That didn’t make poverty or illness good, it was just an acceptance of the fact that when you’re in the lowest place, the only way to look is up. If you’re vulnerable to the worst things that life can throw at you, somehow you also become vulnerable and open to God in a new way. Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
But he also wanted justice for the poor. He saw the way poverty stripped people of their dignity and often enslaved people. Jesus understood the social structures which made people poor, which kept people poor – and it angered him. At the heart of his Nazareth Manifesto is the idea of liberation and freedom for those who find themselves oppressed by systems and structures beyond their control.
Let me tell you, it’s desperately easy for a preacher to make people feel guilty about all of this. Historically and geographically, we are on the wealthy side of the tracks. But let me reassure you, I’m feeling the heat every bit as much as you. I received my call to ministry back in the early 80s; I was trained for ministry while Faith In The City was being written; the greatest single influence on my decisions about where to live and work was David Shepherd’s book ‘Bias to the Poor’; that led us as a family to deprived communities in East London and Sheffield.
But now I live in a big house in a lovely part of Rochester. My kids go to a private school. We are a 2-car family. If you’re feeling uncomfortable in the face of Jesus’ challenging words, join the club. I’m squirming.
So can we do anything beyond standing with our heads bowed in shame?
I believe Jesus wanted to give more than guilt to the rich, and more than sympathy to the poor. (repeat). That’s what the year of jubilee did – it gave the rich a vision for a fairer world in which their wealth could make a difference. And it gave the poor a hope that they could hold the light of their faith up to the world with dignity.
We can respond to these things at a number of different levels:
Through the ballot box. Ask yourself which party most represents good news for the poor and vote for them. It’s very simple. And that’s not a party political point, because these days the question of which party represents good news to the poor is not as straightforward as it maybe used to be.
Get involved in local politics; write to MPs on issues of poverty. Campaign for just and fair laws that don’t enslave whole sections of society. Support the Drop The Debt Campaign; use any position of power or influence you have to make the world a better place
Support local initiatives aimed at reducing poverty, such as Credit Unions. Medway Credit Union needs you!
Give money to aid agencies that are working among the world’s poorest communities. Cf Poverty & Hope appeal; charity evensongs. Remember all the time that what the poor want most is justice, not charity. We give money in order to allow greater empowerment of the poor, not just to try and sort out their problems.
Support the Medway Emmaus project, which will provide housing and employment to a community of homeless people.
Support the development of a Faith Observatory, which will empower faith groups to become more active in tackling local inequalities throughout the Thames Gateway, and ensure that the benefits of regeneration are felt by everyone, not just those with money.
Live as simply as we can ourselves, as generously as we can.
- Pray. Never underestimate the power of identifying spiritually in prayer with those who are poor.
As followers of Christ one of our primary purposes is the liberation, the freedom, the overturning of structures and circumstances that trap, enslave and oppress people. Those structures, those circumstances are not just financial ones, they can be anything from bereavement to debt, from bad housing to loneliness, from unemployment to ill health.
I thank God for the different ways in which the cathedral aims to do this. Long may these things continue. Rooted in prayer, worship and the renewal of our spirituality may we proclaim the year of Jubilee and be, in as many ways as we can, good news to the poor.